Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A front-row seat to democracy in the Philippines

I spent Sunday afternoon down at the Philippines Embassy in Singapore, interviewing expat Filipinos after they cast their votes for president, vice president and legislators -- I was a one-man exit poll. Then I wrote this story.

Filipinos are a generally joyous bunch and it was clear the thousand or so that voted on Sunday were excited to be exercising what many characterized as their civic duty. Many people stood outside the walls of the embassy in the scorching sunshine taking pictures of their ink-stained index-finger nails, documentation that they had actually voted. (Voters' nails are splashed with indelible ink that remains for a week so officials can be sure no one is voting more than once.)

Many of the people there were first-time voters, or second-timers at most. The Philippines instituted overseas voting in 2004, so for many of the Filipino women who have worked as maids and nannies in Singapore for decades this was a rare chance to have a say in the goings-on back home. Indeed, most of the people I met there said they were domestic "helpers". Many of them were shy, but they clearly enjoyed the opportunity to vote.

I asked everyone I talked to who they voted for, but that was not information everyone offered up easily. Most people younger than 35 had no problem discussing their choice with me. It was the older crowd that was a bit cagey. Some told me they didn't think it would be appropriate to reveal their candidate of choice. Others were decidedly more paranoid. One woman told me she had a son in Manila, and wouldn't want him to get any unwelcome visits. Given the history of election-related violence in the Philippines, I can't say I blame them for being cautious.

The big buzz surrounding this year's election was the introduction of automated voting machines. As far as I know, they were not made by Diebold. Still, pre-election reports that the machines were glitchy led some to wonder if they might cause more problems than they solve.

Most people at the embassy on Sunday were pleased with the new machines. Sure the new system was no guarantee against "cheating", may of them said, but it's a big improvement over the old method of writing in your candidate's name and having the ballots counted by hand. "If we're not going to start it now, then when? We don't want to be stuck with manual elections forever," one woman told me.

All indications (including my one-man exit poll) are that Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino would win the presidency in a landslide. I honestly can't say what this will mean for the Philippines, but Aquino, if nothing else, has impressive roots. Here's hoping he does his nation proud.